A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has gone vertical at Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A ahead of the company’s 18th launch this year and 44th dedicated Starlink launch overall.
Known as Starlink 4-17, the mission will kick off up to four Starlink launches planned for May 2022. SpaceX has chosen Falcon 9 booster B1058 to launch the mission’s expendable upper stage, reusable fairing, and 53 Starlink V1.5 satellites into space, potentially making it the third Falcon booster to complete its 12th orbital-class launch in the last two months.
Barring delays, Falcon 9 will lift off with Starlink 4-17 as early as 5:42 am EDT on Friday, May 6th.
The mission is about as standard as Starlink launches come. Falcon 9 B1058 will lift off and burn for two and a half minutes before separating, flipping around, reentering Earth’s atmosphere, and landing around 634 kilometers (393 mi) downrange on drone ship A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG) six minutes later. The payload fairing will split into halves and separate shortly after booster separation and eventually deploy parachutes for soft ocean landings and recovery. Falcon 9’s upper stage will reach a parking orbit about nine minutes after liftoff, reignite for just a second 45 minutes after liftoff, and deploy all 53 Starlink satellites 53 minutes after liftoff.
Starlink 4-17 will be SpaceX’s 43rd operational Starlink launch and 44th dedicated Starlink launch overall. The mission will raise the total number of Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX in the last three years to just shy of 2500 and the total number of working Starlink satellites in orbit above 2200. When SpaceX received its initial Starlink FCC license in March 2018, the company agreed to a deployment schedule that required half of the then 4425 satellites to be launched within six years and the full constellation within nine years of license receipt – March 2024 and March 2027, respectively.
SpaceX has far exceeded the pace required to meet that schedule. Instead, despite the fact that it took SpaceX 20 months after receiving its license to begin operational Starlink launches in November 2019, SpaceX will cross the halfway point on May 6th, 2022 – nearly two years faster than required. In fact, even without considering Starship’s potential impact, SpaceX’s growing launch cadence suggests that the company could finish its first 4408-satellite Starlink constellation by the FCC’s 50% deadline.
Finally, after Starlink 4-17, SpaceX should also have more than 700 working Starlink V1.5 satellites in orbit since launches began in September 2021. While hundreds of those satellites are still in transit to their final orbits, almost a third of all operational Starlink satellites will have optical inter-satellite links (laser links) once the Starlink V1.5 spacecraft already in orbit finish orbit-raising. Those laser links allow Starlink to connect aircraft, ships, and other moving or exceptionally remote vehicles or locations by routing communications through other Starlink satellites when no line-of-sight ground station is available.